The Boko Haram war has ruined the childhood of countless Nigerian children. Addressing this problem will require holding the perpetrators on both sides accountable and a commitment to safeguard the rights and future of all children.
“They burned my village, killed my parents, and kidnapped me for over two years,” says a teen who has lived through the trauma of war firsthand. He appears to be around nine years old, based on his size. His sister, though, claims he is 14 years old. He seems to be malnourished and has difficulty breathing. He told me he was farming with his father in Bama town, one of the insurgency’s hotspots, when Boko Haram fighters attacked.
Many of us have encountered stories that profoundly touch our hearts, challenging our comprehension of human cruelty in a world marked by numerous wars and humanitarian crises. The Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria is a poignant example, characterized by brutality, instability, and profound sorrow—a situation that has left an enduring mark on a generation of Nigerian children. This op-ed draws from my experience working with affected communities in Nigeria’s northeastern region to shed light on the intricate and heart-wrenching reality of how the military and Boko Haram extremists have subjected hundreds of youngsters to victimization.
Boko Haram, which roughly translates to “Western education is forbidden,” emerged in Nigeria in the early 2000s but gained international notoriety in 2009 when it launched a series of violent attacks. At its core, Boko Haram is an extremist group seeking to establish a strict Islamic state in Nigeria. Its tactics have included bombings, kidnappings, and massacres.
In response to the insurgency, the Nigerian government deployed its military forces to combat Boko Haram, aiming to address the threat. However, this military involvement has brought troubling issues, including allegations of human rights abuses.
One consequence is the collateral damage during operations, resulting in civilian casualties, including children. These actions have led to tragic loss of life, shattered families, and communities scarred by the force meant to protect them.
Moreover, the military’s approach has sometimes lacked necessary subtlety when confronting Boko Haram, with accusations of arbitrary arrests, torture, and extrajudicial killings. This approach often affects children residing in suspicious communities, leading to their detention or harm.
Many residents I interviewed alleged that the Nigerian military has arrested thousands of children, some as young as five, on suspicions of Boko Haram involvement. These arrests occur through various means, including security sweeps, military operations, screening procedures outside of Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps, and based on informant tips. Unfortunately, many of these children are apprehended without sufficient evidence.
Some children endure months or even years of imprisonment without appearing before a judge or receiving formal charges, as mandated by law. These detained children remain unaware of the accusations against them, highlighting the troubling lack of due process. Some witnesses have also reported seeing soldiers carrying deceased detainees from their cells.
Apart from the military, the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) has also been implicated in child abuse. In 2013, self-defense militias formed and became known as the CJTF. Many children suspected of Boko Haram joined the CJTF to dispel suspicions of their involvement with the terrorist group. The CJTF utilized these children primarily for intelligence gathering, search operations, night patrols, crowd control, handling guard posts, and identifying Boko Haram members. Some even allegedly engaged in combat against Boko Haram.
The CJTF’s transgressions extended beyond exposing children to violence. Some older CJTF members committed sexual abuse, including rape and exploitation of girls in the overcrowded IDP camps, sometimes with the involvement of Nigerian security officials. These camps, plagued by famine and other hardships, particularly affected children, leading to severe malnutrition and diseases.
While the actions of the military and CJTF are deeply troubling, it’s crucial to acknowledge that Boko Haram’s atrocities against children are on another level. This extremist group has systematically targeted and victimized children, using them as pawns and war weapons. For instance, on the night of February 24, 2014, 58 schoolboys were brutally murdered in their dormitories while they slept.
Another prominent atrocity done by Boko Haram against minors is the kidnapping of schoolgirls. The abduction of more than 270 Chibok girls in 2014 drew international attention, but it was far from an isolated incident. Hundreds of children, mostly females, have been kidnapped from their schools, homes, and towns. These kidnappings deprive children of their independence and subject them to physical and psychological suffering. Many girls have been forcibly married off to Boko Haram members and sexually abused, establishing a cycle of cruelty.
Boko Haram has also employed youngsters as child soldiers. According to the UN, Boko Haram has recruited at least 8,000 children into its ranks, often through kidnapping. These children are used as combatants and suicide bombers, to burn schools and houses, install explosive devices, abduct other children, as human shields, and in support tasks such as lookouts, messengers, and cooks. Some children have been forced to attack their relatives to show their support for Boko Haram.
Even after these children leave the group, they have been subjected to extended violence, their links to their communities have been severed, and their personal development has been damaged. Due to societal and cultural conventions surrounding sexual assault, those who return with their children born due to sexual violence experience marginalization, discrimination, and rejection from family and community members. They are deprived of their innocence and the opportunity to have a normal childhood.
The psychological impact of living in a combat zone under constant threat from Boko Haram cannot be understated. Children who grow up in the middle of violence, see the brutalization of their families, and lose loved ones have lifetime wounds. Despite the efforts of many organizations, access to mental health care in northeastern Nigeria is still inadequate, leaving many children without the help they require to cope with their trauma. Some of the children I spoke with in Maiduguri need medical and psychological attention, particularly those who had been sexually abused while held captive by Boko Haram.
The Urgent Need for Accountability, Education, and Rehabilitation
Addressing the devastation caused by the Boko Haram conflict on Nigerian children necessitates a diversified strategy. To begin, accountability must be a pillar of any solution. The Nigerian military and Boko Haram must face consequences for their acts. This involves detailed investigations into complaints of military human rights violations and international pressure on Boko Haram to stop its atrocities.
Second, education is potent for healing and empowerment. In partnership with the Nigerian government, the international community must invest in secure and accessible schools for conflict-affected children. To assist youngsters in rebuilding their lives, initiatives for psychosocial assistance and trauma counselling should be prioritized. There is also a need for minors apprehended by the military to be screened quickly and transferred to child protection authorities for rehabilitation, family reunification, and community reintegration.
As I advocate elsewhere, addressing the root causes of violence, including poverty, inequality, and social marginalization, is essential for long-term peace. When children have access to education and the prospect of a better future, extremist groups like Boko Haram lose their appeal. Many children I spoke with explained how their experiences with insurgency and displacement influenced their career aspirations. Some expressed a desire to join the military or police to protect their communities and seek retribution against Boko Haram. These motivations stemmed from their interactions with counter-insurgency security forces and encounters with the Boko Haram insurgency. As one teenager in Maiduguri put it, “most of us [young men] here want to join the army because the military violated us during the state of emergency, and we lost many families and friends to the Boko Haram insurgency. We want to exact vengeance on our deceased brothers and protect our children and brothers.”
Many others desired to improve their circumstances and support their families financially and socially. Their aspirations included traditional markers of adulthood, such as homeownership, marriage, raising children, and assisting their parents and families. Additionally, many children aspired to engage in philanthropy to aid others and contribute to their communities, such as establishing a maternity clinic and launching a small business to employ unemployed youth. They emphasized that those who had endured the most hardship felt a strong inclination to help others.
Nigerian children are trapped in a complex nexus between two forces —the military and Boko Haram. In this tumultuous landscape, children have become the unintended victims of a war they did not create. This is a tragedy that demands our attention and action. It is a story of innocence lost, childhoods stolen, and dreams shattered. The plight of these children reminds us that in any conflict, the most vulnerable suffer the most.
As we contemplate the heart-wrenching tales of Nigerian children caught in the crossfire between the military and Boko Haram, we must reaffirm our commitment to protecting the rights and futures of children everywhere. The world must unite to ensure Nigerian children can reclaim their innocence and rebuild their lives, for they promise a brighter, more peaceful future.